THE opening of the David Hockney retrospective, covering the past six decades, planned as this year’s bigger splash in the London art scene, if one is needed, and the more intimate show of Vanessa Bell at Dulwich Picture Gallery (until 4 June) found me, as so often, on consecutive days juggling other appointments in the diary.
Both are part of a wider plan by galleries and museums, not only in the polis, to mark the 60th anniversary of the Wolfenden report’s publication, and the partial de-criminalisation of homosexuality 50 years ago in 1967.
Tate Britain has already staged a show of Paul Nash (although none of the gallery labels makes any reference to his private life that clearly must have informed his artistic style) and will follow with a survey show, “Queer British Art 1861-1967” (5 April until 1 October).
Should our bishops be worried? After the widely perceived unwillingness of their Lordships to listen to the mood of the recent Shared Conversations, and the arrival of so many African bishops at Canterbury within days of the publication of the Bishops’ report for the General Synod, they may feel threatened.
Such fear and trembling would be only a sign of weakness and, I would argue, misplaced; for what the present exhibition offers is a comprehensive overview of art by an artist who happens to be gay in the same period as has brought widespread social changes, allowing him to come out while he was at college and to follow R. B. Kitaj’s advice to paint what he liked: men.
Even if you cannot speak Polari (which in my day was not available at theological college), visiting this exhibition makes a lot of sense of the past 60 years, on both sides of the Atlantic.
London may have been more exciting than Yorkshire in the 1950s, but much of it remained grey. At the Royal College of Art, Hockney began his exploration of a range of styles and deployed his acerbic wit to challenge society. I rather doubt that advertising executives at Colgate would have wanted to be associated with his 1961 Cleaning Teeth, Early Evening (10pm) W 11 (Astrup Fearnley, Oslo), but Typhoo may have cornered a new market with his Tea Painting in an Illusionistic Style of the same year.
When Hockney first arrived in Los Angeles, he felt that he could serve as the city’s Piranesi, describing it in paint and in prints. Half-finished freeways, palm trees, and the geometry of a fast-rising skyline became the backdrop of a lifestyle that rapidly became intimate and private.
Perhaps I should declare a certain interest. I first encountered Hockney’s art as a smug teenager, taking my parents to the Whitechapel show in the spring of 1970, during a half-term. My father, a well-taught amateur artist himself, drew my attention to Hockney’s use of line, paramount in his drawings, while my mother fussed around the literary references with the knowingness of a London-born teacher. No doubt she had already marked me out as being artistically inclined.
What Tate does so brilliantly in this show is to choose just enough examples of most of his work to make us hungry for more. It includes well-known “iconic” pictures such as the Tate’s own A Bigger Splash and Peter getting out of Nick’s Pool (1966), Mr and Mrs Percy Clark (1970, Tate), alongside the earlier double portrait of Christopher Isherwood and his lover Don Bachardy (1968), the 1972 acrylic painting of Mount Fuji and Flowers, which I always search out in its corridor on Fifth Avenue whenever I am in New York, and the pen-and-ink drawing of W. H. Auden’s “much-lived-in” face.
But then there are sudden surprises such as the mischievous almost photo-realist take on abstract painting from a private collection (Rubber Ring Floating in a Swimming Pool) and the use of videos and an iPad to show the artist making The Supper and The Smoking Room (both 2016), which bring the exhibition to a loud final hurrah.
Hockney uses a range of styles and media in his work. Only his etchings and prints are excluded; their inexplicable admission is in part briefly rectified by the commercial exhibition at Hazlitt Holland-Hibbert until 20 March (38 Bury Street, London SW1), but seems doubly odd, since the artist himself collaborated on the project, which will transfer to Paris and then New York.
Hockney’s fearless enthusiasm for embracing developing technologies at every stage is vertiginous. This has taken him from Polaroid cameras and photocopiers and brought us images derived from iPhones and iPads.
I have on occasion been critical of this as a distraction, and was particularly unconvinced by a recent show of iPad landscapes (Arts, 27 January 2012). Here (some of the RA pictures are included) it is possible to assess the trajectory of the whole as an open invitation to consider abstraction and the figurative.
Since the 15th century, Western art has largely been trapped within the algebraic confines of a single perspective. For Hockney, this is akin to our being a paralysed Cyclops, and, since as early as his 1975 homage to Hogarth, Kerby (Museum of Modern Art, New York), he has playfully tried out any number of ways to use mixed perspectives. His recent work 4 Blue Stools purports to be an interior view of his studio in 2014, but, examined more closely, none of the figures quite fit.
Following the lead of Abel Gance, who for his mammoth film Napoleon (1926) yoked three cameras together to film an oncoming charge, Hockney used nine digital video cameras bracket-mounted on a car that slowly traversed the same stretch of a Yorkshire lane in four seasons (2010-11).
Hockney profoundly helps us to see the world around us by his own playfulness. I would be more than happy to accompany any of the bishops to the exhibition on the day of their choosing to talk and laugh about the world, the flesh and the Devil, gay sex and good art.
“David Hockney” is at Tate Britain, Millbank, London SW1, until 29 May. Phone 020 7887 8888. www.tate.org.uk